BOSTON — The FIS Alpine Ski World Cup kicks off in a little over two weeks. And after a fast recovery, Ted Ligety is ready to race again.
The 32-year-old two-time Olympic gold medalist tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in a training crash last January, then had surgery in early February.
“If Soelden was tomorrow, I’d be racing,” said Ligety, just hours after stepping off an airplane. He flew straight from training in Portillo, Chile, to Boston to attend the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s annual New England Snow Ball on Sept. 29.
|Ted Ligety poses in Championships Plaza with his gold medal in men's giant slalom at the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships on Feb. 13, 2015 in Vail, Colo.|
The giant slalom race on Oct. 23 in Soelden, Austria, is the first world cup of the 2016-17 season. When Ligety kicks out of the start, it will be his first race in almost nine months.
After having surgery to repair the torn ACL in early February, Ligety rehabbed and reconditioned at his home in Park City, Utah. Then he returned to snow on Aug. 10 for a two-week camp in New Zealand, where he free-skied and trained on easier courses.
“I felt good right off the bat,” he said.
Then in September, Ligety spent two more weeks on snow in Chile, where he skied “legitimate pitches and courses,” said Forest Carey, the U.S. Ski Team’s men’s head technical coach.
“He hasn’t had any setbacks with his knee due to his hard work in rehabbing it,” added Carey. “Right now, he’s still on pace to race in Soelden.”
Ligety is optimistic about the upcoming season. This week, he heads to Europe for more on-snow training.
“I'm expecting a lot; I never lower my expectations,” he replied, when asked if the return from injury had lowered his expectations for the season. “So far, skiing feels good. It’s coming along well.”
It’s been a tough couple of years for Ligety, the man who redefined how men ski giant slalom after the international federation mandated straighter skis (without the more radical side-cut that makes skis easier to carve turns). He often won giant slalom races by seconds — not the fractions of a second that normally separate alpine skiers in races — and he claimed five world cup giant slalom season titles. He last won the title in 2014.
The past two seasons, Ligety has not dominated giant slalom like he had previously.
In 2015, he only won one world cup giant slalom race. But he found redemption at the 2015 world championships when he claimed his third straight giant slalom world title on the slopes of Beaver Creek, Colorado. With three consecutive world titles, Ligety’s name is now listed along with the legendary Ingemar Stenmark. They are the only two male alpine skiers to have won three world titles in a row.
Ligety also claimed the bronze medal in combined at 2015 worlds — his seventh world championship medal (more than any other U.S. alpine skier, male or female). He has won at least one medal at every world championship since 2009.
With a win at the Soelden World Cup last October, it looked like Ligety was back to his winning form. But it would prove to be another frustrating season for the 2006 and 2014 Olympic gold medalist. He finished second in the Beaver Creek World Cup super-G last December, then fourth in a giant slalom right before Christmas. He then struggled to finish races in January. His season ended with the training crash on Jan. 27.
He returned home to Park City to have surgery on his knee, then begin his recovery. With the extra downtime, he worked with his companies, Shred — which has broadened its product lines to include more sunglasses, as well as helmets for mountain biking — and Slytech — which makes wearable protective gear for “snow” (skiing and snowboarding) and “dirt” (mountain and dirt biking).
And Ligety and his wife, Mia, finally took their honeymoon. They were married on July 25, 2015, and went to Bali in May.
“That was the longest I’ve been at home since I was probably like 15 years old,” Ligety said. “It was nice to be home for a while and be able to work out there and recover there. But I’m itching to get on the road again.”
The Soelden giant slalom has traditionally been a good race for Ligety. He has won there four times and is the defending champion.
“I’d like to have more time to get ready for the first races,” he said. “But I feel like I’m good enough to race. I’m not in pain or holding back at all. It’s just getting the high intensity miles up.”
But Carey cautioned that Ligety likely will not contend for the win in Soelden.
“The timeline is short, pretty condensed, so he hasn’t had a lot of skiing,” said Carey. “He’s still working to get there. I think that would be asking too much to be at that super elite level already.”
After Soelden, Ligety will skip the world cup slalom in Levi, Finland, and return home to train for the Beaver Creek World Cup at the end of November.
He has only trained one day of slalom and a handful of downhills. His focus this season is on giant slalom and super-G.
The 2017 FIS Alpine World Ski Championship in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in February is the marquee event for skiers this season. If Ligety wins a fourth consecutive world title in giant slalom, he will be in a class by himself. No other alpine skier has ever won four straight world titles.
Although confident in his skiing, Ligety hedged his bets on a fourth world title. “We’ll see,” he said. “That’s a goal for sure, but you never know until it gets there.”
Although more alpine skiers are continuing to ski into their 30s, the rigors of the sport and the forces on the body — just from training and racing, let alone crashing — can take their toll. Ligety has three herniated discs in his back, a torn labrum in his hip and screws in his wrist that he acquired two years ago after hitting the base of a gate with his hand as he arced a turn.
The time off this year allowed those other injuries to heal as well.
“I feel good, there’s nothing that’s really bothering me at this point,” he said, adding, “No worries injuries-wise.”
But he is realistic about ever winning the overall world cup title — one of the few awards in skiing that Ligety has not yet achieved.
“It’s always a dream reach goal for sure,” he said. “But the feasibility of it is probably somewhat limited for me.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.